By Dan Schlossberg
Had he not passed away two years ago, Hank Aaron would have turned 89 tomorrow.
Ironically, he was born only one day ahead of Babe Ruth, whose long-standing career home run record he topped on April 8, 1974.
Ruth, a left-handed pitcher whose prowess at the plate forced his conversion to position player, had records for both a season (60) and career (714) before Aaron flew past him and beyond, finishing with 755. The one-season record fell too, with Roger Maris hitting 61, Aaron Judge hitting 62, and a few PED-bloated players hitting even more.
Barry Bonds hit 73 — the only time in his career he hit as many as 50 — and Mark McGwire hit 70. Let’s not forget Sammy Sosa, the only man to hit at least 60 in three different seasons.
None of the above could hold a candle to Hank Aaron — especially now that he merits 89 of them.
For starters, he traveled 12 miles further around the bases on his hits than any other batter in baseball history.
The lifetime leader with 1,477 extra-base hits and 2,297 runs batted in, he also had the most total bases with 6,856 — more than 700 ahead of runner-up Stan Musial at 6,134.
Forget Willie, Mickey & the Duke. Mantle was not a .300 hitter, finishing at .298, Mays never led his league in runs batted in, and Snider’s 407 home runs were hardly Hall of Fame worthy (sorry, Dodger fans).
A modest man with herculean accomplishments, Hank would have won four MVPs had he played in New York or Los Angeles. He won the trophy in 1957 after hitting the pennant-winning home run, then hit three more to accompany a .393 batting average in the wining World Series against the Yankees. Even then, pitcher Lew Burdette won the Chevrolet given to the MVP of the seven-game classic after hurling three complete-game wins, two of them shutouts.
In 1959, when Aaron hit a career-best .355, and 1963, when his final marks were .310 with 44 homers, 130 RBI, 201 hits, 121 runs, 37 steals, and a .977 OPS, writers ignored him in the MVP voting, choosing Ernie Banks of the fifth-place Cubs and the more spectacular Sandy Koufax, respectively.
Aaron also deserved the honor in 1971, when he hit .327 with a career-best 47 homers, 118 RBI, and a 1.079 OPS at the ripe old age of 37.
A model of consistency, he never hit more than 47 home runs. His previous peak was 44, matching his uniform number, which he did four times. He had eight 40-homer seasons, his last one at age 39 in 1973, the year before he broke Ruth’s record. That same season, he joined Darrell Evans and Davey Johnson to become the first trio of teammates to hit at least 40 home runs in the same season.
Aaron and Eddie Mathews hit the most home runs (863) during the time they were teammates while Hank and Tommie Aaron had the most home runs (768) by brothers. In one 1962 game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Tommie pinch-hit a home run to lead off the bottom of the ninth. The next three hitters reached before Hank hit a game-winning grand-slam.
Aaron and Mathews homered in the same game 75 times, including the 1961 game when a quartet of Milwaukee Braves became the first foursome to hit four in a row (along with Joe Adcock and Frank Thomas).
Hank had more walks (1,402) than strikeouts (1,383), never fanned 100 times in a season, and won all three components of the Triple Crown, though not in the same season. He had two batting titles, four RBI crowns, four home run crowns, and led the National League in extra-base hits five times, total bases eight times, slugging and doubles four times each, runs and OPS three times each, and hits twice.
His only serious injury came in 1954, his rookie year, when he broke his leg sliding in September and wound up playing just 122 games. He finished with 13 home runs, finishing fourth in a Rookie of the Year race won by Wally Moon.
A notorious wrist hitter who was so relaxed at the plate that it looked like he was falling asleep, Aaron had just one inside-the-park homer — on May 10, 1967 — but victimized a future Hall of Famer and U.S. Senator, Jim Bunning of the Philadelphia Phillies.
Aaron was also a team player, willing and able to play anywhere. He appeared at six different positions for the Braves, with 210 games at first base, 43 at second, seven at third, 315 in left, 308 in center, and 2,174 in right.
While it’s true Ruth finished with a significantly higher batting average, conditions changed dramatically from his heyday to Hank’s. Consider the fact that the overall major-league average fell from .282 at Ruth’s peak to .252 at Aaron’s — thanks to things like night games, coast-to-coast travel, and the advent of relief pitching.
So Aaron’s NL mark of .310 can be favorably compared to Ruth’s .342 after the 30-point differential is factored in.
A cross-handed hitter in the minors, Aaron adopted a more traditional approach once he arrived in the big leagues. “He wasn’t a classic hitter and young players shouldn’t copy him,” Mathews once said. “He hit off his front foot — a flat-footed stance in a batting textbook. It sounds wrong to say that the man who broke Babe Ruth’s record had a fundamental batting flaw. Let’s just say Hank Aaron hit differently than anyone else.”
Out of the limelight in both Milwaukee and Atlanta, Aaron was never considered a threat to Ruth until he saw Atlanta Fulton County Stadium and decided to become a pull hitter. He also had to overcome a deluge of hate mail as a black man chasing the hallowed record of a white legend.
“In my mind, a hitter is always able to hit but first he must be fit and able to get on the field to play,” he said.
On April 8, 1974, he broke The Babe’s record in the fourth inning of the fourth game in the fourth month in a year that ended in 4, against a pitcher wearing a matching 44 uniform number (Al Downing). He led the NL in home runs four times and had four 44-homer seasons, including one in which he tied another No. 44, Willie McCovey.
You can’t make this up.
An All-Star a record 25 times, Aaron also won three Gold Gloves. What he didn’t win — but what he richly deserved — was unanimous election to the Hall of Fame.
Nine moronic voters left his name off their 10-man ballots. Completely. Stupidly. Perhaps with racism in their hearts.
Henry Louis Aaron, arguably the best player in baseball history and certainly the best I ever saw in 54 years of covering the only sport that really matters, got 97.8 per cent.
Former AP sportswriter Dan Schlossberg of Fair Lawn, NJ also writes baseball for forbes.com, Latino Sports, USA TODAY Sports Weekly, Sports Collectors Digest, Memories & Dreams, and other outlets. A baseball historian, he’s also the author of 40 books and a frequent guest speaker. His e.mail is email@example.com.
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